It was 1983 and Chicago was about to elect a new mayor. The good thing was that both contenders, Bernard E. Epton and Harold Washington lived in my neighborhood. I had the privilege of knowing and liking both men – so the question of who would receive my vote posed a bit of a conundrum for me.
Both were attorneys and were already engaged in political careers – Bernie as a member of the State Senate – occupying the seat from which Barack Obama would later get his political start. Harold was a Member of Congress. Of course, Harold Washington would go on to win the election and become Chicago’s first black mayor.
The contrast in both their politics and personalities was stark. Bernie was a moderate Republican and Harold a liberal Democrat. Bernie was reserved in his personal demeanor – in part because he frequently suffered from terrible headaches as a result of his service in the military during the Second World War. On the other hand, Harold was affable and jovial and always reminded me of a black version of Santa Claus. His nearly three hundred pound weight, which ultimately caused his death by heart failure, completed this picture of kindness and generosity.
If there was one thing that endeared Harold Washington to me it was this. He lived on 53rd Street – directly across the street from a beautiful park about a half mile from my apartment. There were several trees across the street that had become home to a colony of feral monk parakeets. The nests were enormous in size – at least they were to me since I had never before seen a monk parakeet nest. I frequently went to this park with my dogs just to admire these birds. At one point I counted more than forty of them – and wondered how they managed to survive Chicago’s frigid winters – but they did.
Apparently, someone was less impressed than I with the idea of monk parakeets flying through our parks and petitioned the Park District to remove the nests and dispose of the birds. The Park District, hearing no objection began to prepare to do just that. Then Harold got wind of the plan. He also loved those birds and put a stop to all that nonsense. I appreciated his intervention and compassion. That park has subsequently been renamed in his honor.
But as it turned out I didn’t vote for Harold but chose Bernie instead. The reason for that decision was because of another act of compassion – this time to Bernie’s credit.
I arrived to open my office one morning and as I sat doing some paperwork my staff came in at the appointed time. One of the recruiters was a 28 year old woman who had only been with us for three months. She was married and the mother of a three year old boy and a one year old girl. Her husband was an auto mechanic.
When the staff had all arrived I began our customary morning meeting to discuss the various recruiting assignments on which I wanted them to focus. I could see that this young lady, Michelle was wearing more makeup than I had previously noticed. But it wasn’t sufficient to cover the obvious bruise and the fact that the skin under her left eye was purple.
I concluded the meeting and began wondering how or if I should discuss this with her. Perhaps she had an accident – but I didn’t think so. You will remember that this was back at a time where people who were good employers took an active interest in their employees’ well-being. It was a time before everyone was afraid to get involved for fear of being sued by the employee with the full support and weight of government. It was a time where people thought that compassion was just that – not an overture to something more sinister.
I had several interviews scheduled that morning and conducted those in less than a thorough manner since my mind was really on my employee, Michelle. But I got through them and at noon the entire staff headed out for lunch except for her and me. When I was sure that we were alone, I stepped out of my office and sat on the chair next to Michelle’s desk. I started with some small talk about how her morning went and then decided to take the plunge.
“You know, I think of all of us here as family. And I have to say I couldn’t help notice the bruise under your left eye. Are you okay?”
Michelle began crying and I took her by the arm and brought her into my office. I closed the door for privacy in the event that any “family members” returned early from luncheon.
She had been married to her husband Tom for five years and as the years went by, Tom had become more and more abusive – both mentally and now physically. He had returned home from a night out at one of the bars that he frequented and wanted something to eat. But there wasn’t much in the house. And he took out his hunger and frustration on his wife by hitting her with his fist.
This was not the first such violent outburst on Tom’s part, but it was the first time that his anger was visible – since he normally punched her in the stomach or back.
Michelle, both for her own safety and for that of their two children, wanted to leave him but she had no money and she didn’t know what to do – other than to return to her parents’ home. She was afraid for her life.
We talked some more and I realized that probably getting divorced from this man would be a good first step. But I only knew two attorneys – Harold Washington and Bernie Epton – neither of whom practiced this sort of law. Harold was in the nation’s capitol at the time so I called Bernie to see if he could direct me to an attorney who could help Michelle.
Despite his position as a State Senator, Bernie also had a law firm in Chicago – and since the Senate was in recess I thought I would try him there. So I looked up his number and called – planning to leave a message and hoping that Bernie would get back to me. Michelle needed to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Much to my surprise, Bernie’s receptionist put me through to him. I explained the situation and I said, “I know, Bernie this is not the type of law you practice – but I’m wondering if you might be able to refer me to a colleague who could help my employee.”
Bernie responded by asking for my phone number and said that he would make a few calls and get back to me. I didn’t know what time framework he had in mind but I was hopeful that this was a sincere statement and not just a polite put-off.
I was amazed when my receptionist rang my extension less than an hour later and said, “Bernie Epton is on line three.”
Bernie had called a colleague and made an appointment for Michelle with him for the following morning. Apparently, he had a done a favor for this attorney some time previously and the man owed him one. That favor was soon to be repaid because Bernie asked this attorney to handle Michelle’s situation “pro bono” and he had agreed.
Michelle left both Tom and my company and moved to Stockton, California where her parents lived. I was sorry to see her go because she had a lot of promise and had circumstances been different, I think she could have become a very successful recruiter.
When she told me about her decision, I gave her money so that she and the children could travel home and told her that she could pay me back when she had gotten on her feet. A few months after she left I opened my mail to find a letter from her and a check as partial payment. And each month after that for about a year another check would arrive until the loan was paid in full. The following month we received a beautiful fruit basket from Michelle. The card read, “To all my friends back home. God bless you. I miss all of you.”
Harold Washington was a compassionate man – a man with a lot of “soul”. And his opponent Bernie Epton was, to use the appropriate Yiddish term, “a mensch”. I respected both of them greatly.
Deciding which of the two would receive my vote was a very difficult decision.